Build your vocabulary with Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day! Each day a Merriam-Webster editor offers insight into a fascinating new word -- explaining its meaning, current use, and little-known details about its origin.
February 19th, 2016
Episode 454 of 689 episodes
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for February 19, 2016 is: astrolabe \A-struh-layb\ noun : a compact instrument used to observe and calculate the position of celestial bodies before the invention of the sextant Examples: "His astrolabe of silver was the gift of the Emperor of Germany…." — Sir Walter Scott, Quentin Durward, 1823 "The astrolabe, whose invention is often attributed to the Greek astronomer Hipparchus, places the Earth at the center of the universe, with all celestial bodies orbiting around it." — Grégory Gardinetti, CNN.com, 6 Jan. 2016 Did you know? "Thyn Astrolabie hath a ring to putten on the thombe of thi right hond in taking the height of thinges." Thus begins a description of the astrolabe in A Treatise on the Astrolabe, a medieval user's guide penned by an amateur astronomer by the name of Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer is best known for his Middle English poetic masterpiece The Canterbury Tales, but when his nose wasn't buried in his writing, Chaucer was stargazing, and some of his passion for the heavens rubbed off on his son Lewis, who had displayed a special "abilite to lerne sciences touching nombres and proporciouns." Chaucer dedicated his treatise to the 10-year-old boy, setting his instructions not in the usual Latin, but in "naked wordes in Englissh" so that little Lewis could understand. When he got older, Lewis may have learned that the word astrolabe traces to the Greek name for the instrument.